Lewis has say on '03 class

1-29-03, 5:55 a.m.

With apologies to Cincinnati Talk Show Master Lance McAlister, who has a weekly segment of "I Believe. . . .", and Sports Illustrated's Peter King, who writes a "Things I Think I Think," column for CNN/SI, here is a thoroughly modest attempt at "Things I Think I Believe. . ." **

I Think I Believe Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis has a lot of players wondering where they're going to be for training camp.**

Yes, Lewis says he will sit down guys if they foul up or don't produce, and, yes, he sat down Hall-of-Famers in Washington this past year. Yes, Lewis, like every other coach in the NFL, says he'll cut guys if it fits within the salary cap.

"But that's a last resort thing," Lewis says. "Let's get them in here, tell them what we expect, and hope it doesn't come down to drastic measures."

Will Bengals President Mike Brown let him take the drastic measures? Brown's Wizard of Oz persona has been overstated down through the years. Take the latest example. Only after former head coach Dick LeBeau agreed to give Michael Westbrook a second chance and the coaches finally couldn't tolerate his unreliability did the Bengals release Westbrook despite his $350,000 bonus back on Thanksgiving Eve. **

I Think I Believe Lewis has as much power as a lot of coaches in the NFL and certainly more than his peers in the Class of 2003.**

It remains to be seen what kind of sway Steve Mariucci is going to have in Detroit, but as long as Matt "Because I'm at The Top," Millen casts a long, curious shadow, it's going to be stunted. Mariucci certainly wasn't going to ascend to

King in San Francisco, where apparently just wondering about replacing aging John McVay as contract negotiator and salary cap chief got him fired.

Lewis won't negotiate contracts or deal with the cap in Cincinnati, but he has clear access and input to the people who do and won't be bumping into Bill Walsh and Terry Donahue along the way like Mariucci did. In fact, it can be argued that no other coach, except Bill Parcells in Dallas and Bill Callahan in Oakland, has more direct access to the final say of the owner.

Lewis didn't get a call to interview in Jacksonville and that might be the break of his life. To get as far away as possible from Tom Coughlin's Coach/GM/One Voice era, Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver has split power among himself, new coach Jack Del Rio, and two other executives.

The guy who negotiates contracts is also in charge of the training room, the equipment staff and video department. Del Rio has actually said, "I believe they'll let me know who's hurt from time to time."

He was joking, but it's no joke in Cincinnati, where it now looks like Lewis is reviewing how to handle the announcement of injuries and may end up doing it himself. He's also calling the shots on training camp, coaches' titles, locker-room etiquette, and anything else involving football operations.

He has to consult Brown, but as long as Lewis doesn't bring the cast of "Scrubs," into the training room, The Village People into the equipment space, and Larry Flynt into video, all indications are he's going to get pretty much what he wants. If it's reasonable, you've got to figure it's going to happen.

(Indications include former No. 1 draft pick Ricky Hunley returning last week as linebackers coach, offensive line coach Paul Alexander returning as assistant head coach, and a Paul Brown hire not returning in strength and conditioning coach Kim Wood).

I think I believe the Bengals will draft USC quarterback Carson Palmer with the No. 1 draft pick.

There is absolutely no basis in fact to make this call, except maybe that the Brown family was seen talking to Palmer's parents at the Senior Bowl.

For all we know, they will trade it to the Bears or Panthers. But at the moment, with all this talk about Palmer being the next Troy Aikman and some teams having him rated higher than last year's No. 1 pick in David Carr, it's hard to see them passing.

But here's the thing. The current Bengals' coaches have yet to scout him or talk to him yet on an extensive level. And look at Lewis' track record of drafting first-round cornerbacks (Duane Starks, Chris McAlister). That would indicate a trade, but maybe Lewis gets sold on Palmer.

It's too early to even say it's too early.

I think I believe the jury is still out on whether they will transition tag linebacker Takeo Spikes in free agency at $5 million for this year.

With middle linebacker Brian Simmons already averaging about $3.8 million per year, it's hard to believe a defensive guru is going to pump $9 million into what is essentially two inside linebacker spots without putting any kind of money into the perimeter.

That said, Lewis knows coaches are only as good as their players and Spikes and Simmons are the best players on this defense. What could happen is they may tag him right away to take him out of the market and then maybe as free agency and the draft evolves (with, say, a cornerback and defensive end/tackle?) they would always have the option of taking off the tag. But it is still hard to believe they won't line up with No. 51 next year and harder still to think that he wouldn't feel good about playing defense for Marvin Lewis.

I think I believe the most underrated hire in the NFL in the past month has been Lewis' appointment of Leslie Frazier as defensive coordinator.

Maybe it's getting blown off because people just assume Lewis is going to be running the defense. But here's a hire you rarely see in the NFL: A minority position coach who has paid just the right amount of dues in the Eagles secondary and gets promoted at just the right time in his career (age 43) when his success would suggest he's ready and shouldn't have to wait until he's 55.

People around the league rave about the guy, mainly about what a great human being is, but also about the fact he's had superb experience playing for Buddy Ryan in Chicago and coaching for Jim Johnson in Philadelphia in aggressive, blitzing schemes. Titans head coach Jeff Fisher, Frazier's former Bears teammate in Ryan's secondary, and Eagles head coach Andy Reid have already bent Bengals fullback Lorenzo Neal's ear at the Pro Bowl this week about what a difference Frazier can make.

Fisher should know. On Sunday, he's coaching against three of his players (cornerbacks Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor and safety Brian Dawkins) in the NFC secondary.

And here's a guy who has already spent nine years as a head college coach when he started the program at NAIA at Trinity in Illinois and did so well they named the field after him when he left. Making a call on third-and-three against Tim Couch ought to be a breeze compared to starting a program from out of a briefcase.

OK, it all works in strange ways. The Bengals should have drafted Vincent with the sixth pick in the 1992 NFL Draft instead of David Klingler. Maybe the Gods will forgive now that 11 seasons later the Bengals have Vincent's position coach.

I think I believe losing defensive coordinator Mark Duffner is a hard departure to take.

It had to happen because Lewis has to start his own deal in Cincinnati , Duffner has to get away for a new start in Green Bay, and the organization needs a fresh start to sell tickets.

But that doesn't mean life in the NFL is fair. Don't forget, before it all unraveled this guy was the heir apparent as the head coach and for good reason. He can teach, he's enthusiastic, he's successful. He had one of the best runs at his position (linebackers) in Bengals history and good coaches simply don't grow on trees.

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